As I write this review, we here in the States are approaching an historic Presidential election. For many, the voting decision comes down to individual beliefs related to the economy and civil rights. So it was with a familiar national context that I approached Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film as much about the man himself as it is about the fight to approve the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and thereby put an end to the Civil War. Much as our 16th President was equal to the task, so too was Spielberg in his effort to bring this story to the screen, complemented by the absorbing lead performance of Daniel Day-Lewis and the dynamic writing of Tony Kushner. While the film missed on a few marks, Lincoln remains an engaging story full of heart, humor and conviction that remains culturally relevant even today. Hit the jump for my review.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is less a biopic than a portrait of a man in power during a short time of immense historical significance. It’s no birth-to-death tale of the President, although Kushner’s initial 500-page behemoth did make an attempt at it. Instead, Spielberg honed in on a slice of Lincoln’s life, a brief few months that focused on the wheeling and dealing of the Executive Branch with members of the House of Representatives in order to force a two-thirds majority to approve the 13th Amendment. However, no movie titled Lincoln would be complete without a few tropes, including the Gettysburg Address. This is where Spielberg’s picture starts off, and where it misses its first step.
After the nearly bloodless family film, War Horse, Spielberg is quick to set the tone of Lincoln as a mature story told amidst the grave events of the Civil War. A bold title screen bolstered by the symphonic force of John Williams’ score leads into a gruesome scene on the battlefield where black Union Soldiers fight against Confederate troops in the mud and the muck. Short on blood and guts, the scene is no less resonant as soldiers are stabbed in the back while grappling with any enemy they can lay their hands on, whereas others are slowly forced beneath the mud to drown. It is out of this chaos that we’re introduced to Day-Lewis as Lincoln when the President visits the troops in the aftermath of the battle. All well and good so far, but Spielberg shows too much of his characteristic schmaltz when two fresh-faced white soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address for the President in reverence. Day-Lewis handles it smoothly, with a smile and a nod, but one can suspect that Spielberg used this moment to shoehorn the reference in and to get it out of the way.
And after that, the film allows the audience to settle in. Day-Lewis, as he often does, disappears into the role and becomes Lincoln, a man who exists today as much in myth as he does in memory. Day-Lewis’ voice for Lincoln, which was a bit jarring in the initial trailer, fit perfectly with his performance on screen. The tall, gangly President he presented was oft times soft-spoken, quicker with an anecdote than an answer and always sage in his speech.
But here’s where Lincoln becomes a film that’s about more than just the man, which works for the story that Spielberg and Kushner wanted to tell, but suggests a misnomer on the part of the title (the film could have more accurately been named The 13th Amendment). A large portion of the film is given over to Lincoln’s fellow team members, among them Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn) and Southern Republican reformer Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). While these prominent players advised and opposed Lincoln in turns, the real dirty work of wrangling Democratic support fell to Robert W. Latham (John Hawkes), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) and Nashville lawyer W.N. Bilbo (James Spader). Spader landed the most audacious and comical of scenes, including one where he dodges a literal bullet fired by a prospective lame duck Democrat. The scenes with Lincoln’s lobbyists were essential to maintaining the pace and injecting comic relief, but detracted from the point of making a film entitled Lincoln.
Whether it was to disarm an aggressive adversary, entertain a weary band of supporters or impose upon his cabinet members the gravity of the impending vote, Day-Lewis was more convincing as Lincoln than any living politician I’ve ever seen. He uses this characterization as Lincoln to appease his party members, who vary in their enthusiasm for ending slavery but are all united on ending the war, as well as courting votes from the opposing Democratic Representatives, who welcome peace but resist an end to slavery as it’s the basis of their economy.
The ensemble cast works well, however, in scenes of pitched battle between Republicans and Democrats in the House. The back-and-forth is reminiscent of modern-day banter between politicians and Kushner’s writing sounds, at times and delightfully so, as if Aaron Sorkin has written a period political piece. The speed at which the dialogue is delivered and the time-appropriate terminology is wildly entertaining and provides a needed distraction from the impending vote that hangs over the heads of characters and audiences alike. Though the historical outcome is obvious, Spielberg and Kushner manage to instill a tension in Lincoln that keeps the pace brisk. There is often an added component of a metronome or other timepieces in the background of various conversational scenes throughout the film, a constant reminder of the ticking clock, much as the prevalent smoke is a harbinger of the ongoing war and continued destruction should they fail.
Other standouts among the supporting cast members include Lee Pace, who played an excellent turn as the filibustering New York Democrat and Confederate sympathizer, Fernando Wood; Walton Goggins as Ohio Congressman Clay Hawkins, who has both comedic and climactic scenes in Lincoln; and Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania’s Radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens has a personally vested interest in seeing that the 13th Amendment is approved and has strong (and hilarious) words for anyone who opposes. Jones turned in a fiery performance, but was not without an emotional range for his character, who is forced to make some difficult choices before it’s all said and done. Look for Oscar nods in his direction this coming awards season as he has a claim that’s right up there with Day-Lewis.
Speaking of our lead, the most fascinating aspect of Lincoln was Day-Lewis’ performance of a man beset on all sides by the responsibilities of his position and the unenviable task of achieving the cessation of slavery and an end to bloodshed, while maintaining a strong and confident demeanor in the face of a crumbling personal life. Considering all that is heaped upon him, Lincoln retains a warm, almost grandfatherly sense of humor (which Day-Lewis absolutely nails, I can’t stress that enough). Having lost one son earlier in their marriage, Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd (nicknamed Molly) have a contentious relationship at best. Spielberg effortlessly weaves the familial elements of the Lincolns’ struggles throughout the story and, as in life, they become intertwined with the political problems of the Presidency. Mary Todd (Sally Field) suffered depression and anxiety since the loss of her son and experiences migraines as a result of a carriage accident. Though a staunch abolitionist and supporter of her husband, she vehemently opposes the decision of her son Robert’s decision to enlist; the fallout from this is just another toll exacted on Lincoln.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Robert Lincoln, is wasted in the picture, having only one scene with emotional resonance that serves little purpose other than to add another burden atop the pile of grief that already lays across Lincoln’s shoulders. Another miscast in Lincoln was British actor Jared Harris as Union General, Ulysses S. Grant, who was more of a caricature with a distracting accent than a necessary character in the plot. Other missteps in Lincoln include the repetitive shots of Day-Lewis in profile against an overexposed background and the abundance of scenes with characters positioned so that they’ll conveniently be reflected in a mirror during a poignant moment; in moderation these clichés can be powerful, but in Lincoln they become predictable and exhausting. Also, Spielberg’s need to walk historical characters on screen as cameos or to spoon feed history lessons to the audience with a heavy hand serve only to weaken what is otherwise an impressively woven narrative tapestry .
While Lincoln neither drafted the legislation of the 13th Amendment, had the power to pass it into law, nor did he personally secure all the necessary votes, his war-time Emancipation Proclamation, which freed some three million slaves of States in open rebellion, started the nation on the path toward the abolition of slavery. The 13th Amendment became an important legal step in continuing in peace what his temporary powers granted him in times of strife. Lincoln saw the amendment pass the Senate and the House, but did not live to see it formally adopted in December of 1865. Spielberg ends Lincoln as he begins, with a trope that’s generally expected in any adaptation of the President’s life: his assassination. It’s not handled explicitly, owing to the PG-13 rating I’d wager, but the fallout is no less damaging to the family. Arguably, Spielberg had a much better ending point just prior to the Lincolns leaving for the theater. There is a brief but laughable scene after Lincoln’s death that pulled me out of the experience, but a final speech from the great orator closes Lincoln out in fine form.
Though the film suffers from moments of “Spielberg schmaltz,” the powerful performances of Day-Lewis and Jones, coupled with a rich and relevant narrative pulled from one of the most iconic Presidents in American history, make Lincoln a must-see film of the year.